Children’s services referral and assessment

This page explains the duties of Children’s Services once a child protection referral is made. It describes the assessment process and timescales and explains possible outcomes of a child protection investigation.

If you think a child is in immediate danger call the police on 999, your local Children’s Services or the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000

Children’s Services have a legal duty to investigate situations where a concern has been expressed about the safety and well-being of a child. The child protection investigation is predominantly the responsibility of social workers within Children’s Services, however they do work closely with the Police, health workers and other professionals who are connected to the child and/or family.

What is a referral and who can make a referral to Children’s Services?

 A referral, in the context of child protection, is when someone contacts Children’s Services because they have concerns about the safety and well-being of a child.

Anyone can make a referral including a parent, wider family member, friend, doctor, teacher or health visitor.

What happens when Children’s Services receive a referral?

 When information is received, by way of a referral, which indicates that there are concerns about the safety and well-being of a child, Children’s Services have 24 hours to decide what type of response is required. In making this decision, the social worker will have to determine whether:

  • the child(ren) require immediate protection and thus urgent and immediate action is required;
  • the child(ren) is/are in need;
  • there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the child(ren) is/are suffering, or is/are likely to suffer, significant harm and whether further enquiries need to be made;
  • any services which the child(ren) and/or family require and what they are;
  • whether any further specialist assessments are needed to help Children’s Services determine what further action to take;
  • whether any action needs to be taken; and
  • if there is no further action they can take, whether to refer the matter to a more appropriate agency.

What happens if Children’s Services decide to conduct an assessment following a referral?

Unless the child or children in question requires immediate protection, the majority of cases will begin with a social worker conducting a multi-agency assessment under section 17 of the Children Act 1989. The assessment needs to be carried out within 45 days from the point of referral. This was previously known as an initial assessment or core assessment.

The purpose of the assessment is to gather information and to analyse the needs of the child or children and/or their family and the nature and level of any risk of harm to the child or children.

Each Local Authority will have their own child protection procedure and protocols for assessment. However, the investigation will generally require that a social worker:

  • visit the family and discuss the allegations which have been made;
  • conduct an interview with the child away from the family;
  • liaise with other professionals who are involved with the child and/or family;
  • assess the developmental needs of the child;
  • assess the ability of the parents to respond to the child’s needs; and
  • consider the impact the family, the family history, the wider family and environmental factors are having on the parents’ capacity to respond to their child’s needs and the child’s developmental progress.

What if I do not want my child to be interviewed independently?

Every assessment must be informed by the views of the child, as well as the family.

Children’s Services are legally required under the Children Act 1989 to ascertain the child’s wishes and feelings about the provision of services. The Working Together to Safeguard Children Guidance states that children should be seen alone, wherever possible.

When talking to the child, the social workers must observe and communicate with them in a manner appropriate to his age and understanding.

If a parent does not provide consent for the social worker to speak to the child on their own, professionals may become more concerned for the child’s safety and well-being. This can result in Children’s Services escalating their involvement, for example, an order can be sought form the court to make sure that the child is safe. 

What possible outcomes are there of an assessment by Children’s Services?

As a result of the assessment, Children’s Services will decide one of the following:

  • that the child is not ‘In Need’. In this case, Children’s Services will take no further action other than, where appropriate, to provide information and advice in accordance with the local Common Assessment Framework.
  • that the child is ‘In Need’, but it has been determined that the child is not suffering, or considered likely to suffer, significant harm. In this case, Children’s Services will determine the support which will be provided and draw up a ‘Child In Need’ plan accordingly. For more information see our page on Child in need.
  • that the child is ‘In Need’ and that there are concerns that the child is suffering, or considered likely to suffer, significant harm. In which case, Children’s Services will initiate a Strategy Discussion to determine whether a Section 47 investigation is necessary; and consider whether any immediate protective action is also required.

Strategy Discussion

A strategy discussion is arranged when Children’s Services has reasonable cause to believe that a child is at risk of suffering or likely to suffer significant harm. The discussion is led by Children’s Services and it can involve other agencies such as the Police, health and education providers.

The aim of the meeting is to:

  • share information between the agencies involved;
  • decide what further steps should be taken to safeguard the child concerned, including any immediate action where appropriate;
  • plan the Section 47 investigation (if one is to be undertaken), including the need for further information;
  • determine when the child will be interviewed alone by the lead social worker (where appropriate given the age of the child); and
  • determine what information from the Strategy Discussion will be shared with the family, unless such information sharing may place a child at increased risk of harm or jeopardise any criminal investigation.

Parents and family will not be invited to participate or attend the strategy discussion. 

Section 47 investigation

Under section 47 Children Act 1989, the Local Authority is under a duty to make enquiries and to investigate if there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. The purpose of these enquiries is for the Local Authority to determine whether it needs to take any further action to promote or safeguard the child’s welfare.

A child can be placed on a ‘Child Protection Plan’ if the outcome of the section 47 investigation has determined that the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. 

How will Children’s Services decide whether the child is at risk of harm?

 Harm is defined as:

“The ill-treatment, or the impairment of health or development, including for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another.”

  • “development” means physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development;
  • “health” means physical or mental health;
  • “ill-treatment” includes sexual abuse and forms of ill-treatment which are not physical.’ (s31 (9) Children Act 1989)

Where the question of whether the harm suffered by a child is significant turns on the child’s health or development, it is necessary to compare his health or development with what could reasonably be expected of a similar child (s31 (10) Children Act 1989).

Going further

If you wish to initiate a complaint against Children’s Services, detailed information can be found in our How-to Guide. Please note that a fee is charged for this service.